What’s More Important: User Experience or SEO?

It’s an age old debate, especially for entrepreneurs and smaller businesses. Typical questions we hear are things like:

  • Should I spend my time making sure my website is easy to use?
  • Would I be better served focusing on traffic generation?
  • Are the two areas completely separate or overlapping?
  • Ultimately, what do I need to do to succeed on the internet?

Just this week, we met with a client who recently redesigned their website. They found that rankings had shuffled upon relaunch, and were struggling with the same questions.

We were fortunate enough to have a call with all stakeholders on it – the owner, marketing agency, web design shop, and us as the SEO team supporting their long term traffic goals.

That conversation went very well. But it did bring these questions to the forefront of my attention. So let’s go ahead and cover it off on the blog for this week. I’m sure at least some of you will find this educational and useful.

What is User Experience?

If you ask 10 different people this question, you might get 10 different derivations on the same reply. Since User Experience (UX) is a growing field that everyone should be aware of, we should all get on the same page about its definition.

First, let me call out one thing: User Experience is NOT synonymous with usability. Usability is about how easy it is to understand and find things on a website, but UX is much more than that.

The Neilson Norman Group has a great definition on their website:

“User experience” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.

That’s a great definition, even though it is very broad and inclusive. But in reality, it’s how customers view the world.

So your website does play a huge role in user experience. Even moreso if you are an internet based business such as an ecommerce store or SaaS vendor. In those cases, it is the vast majority of how customers interact with your brand.

At its most base level, user experience is about how your brand interacts with customers. If you own and run a website for that brand, it is a key piece of the overall UX. Smart companies will integrate the two, online and offline, in a way that exhibits consistency and convenience for the customers.

To further hammer home the point, check out how UX is defined on Wikipedia:

User Experience (UX) involves a person’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotions about using a particular product, system or service.

This page flips it completely. By this definition, UX is all on the customer side. While UX does involve the reactions to your brand, website, etc., you play an important role in helping influence the nature of that UX. If your communication and customer service stinks, no matter how you do it, your UX will suffer.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Now let’s look at the other side of this question: Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Since we specialize in inbound and internet marketing, I’ll provide our own brief definition.

Search Engine Optimization is everything you do both on and off your website to influence where your content shows up on the organic (i.e. free) search engine results pages.

That’s a pretty basic and straightforward definition, but there are many layers beneath it.

Everything you do on your website can include the type of content you publish, how you mark it up, the website architecture and navigation, and how you structure the body copy, page titles, and other on-page items.

Everything you do off your website can include guest posting, link building/earning, public relations, and even social networking and bookmarking.

And then there’s the matter of technical SEO. That’s where your page load time / performance, server-side set up (e.g. robots.txt, XML sitemap), and other items influence whether a search engine wants to rank you.

What do all of these have in common? They are about ranking YOUR website. But they are only indirectly focused on serving the customer. That same customer whom you want and need to be in front of to run a successful business.

Should You Focus More on SEO or UX?

Bottom line: you need to be in front of more customers, but those customers will only engage with you if you interact in a way that works for them. What does this mean?

You can’t just pick SEO or UX and assume you are covered. The two must be balanced.

Things like page load time absolutely have an impact on UX. Slow loading sites ruin the experience for customers and reflect poorly on your brand.

If you know what experience you want to build out on the site, that should influence keyword selection, content strategy, and where you want to earn links. And your UX goes far beyond the website, so the way you behave on social channels is also critical to successful UX.

The rub in all of this is that you will often have to make tradeoffs between the two. Our discussion this week dug into whether we want to further compress images to speed up load time, or whether that would hurt on-site UX.

Sure, a page might load 1/10 of a second faster by compressing feature images a bit, but will they look professional and sharp? Our client’s brand won’t settle for fuzzy imagery, so we had to accept that we simply won’t manage to tweak every single variable to minimize load time.

That is only one of many areas where tradeoffs must be made. But there’s some upside too – in recent years, SEO has become more dependent on UX than ever before. You can’t just build a bunch of SEO bait pages and expect them to rank. Google has figured out all of the tricks to game the system, and websites with good UX will outrank website that employ trickery of any type.

So target keywords and topics. Structure the content well. Earn good links from relevant sites. But never forget that UX overlaps all of this. UX goes beyond your website to your overall web presence, so take it seriously and balance against SEO.

Summary

I know it might sound like much more work, but it will pay off for you to balance between SEO and UX when managing your web presence. If you are overwhelmed with work, find a better way. Bring in vendors or freelancers. Hire a virtual assistant if you must (there are services that can provide a lot of support for less than $500 / month).

What other questions about SEO and UX tradeoffs do you have? Feel free to share in the comments and let’s discuss.